Line by Line

Justine Greening the new UK minister for International Development has apparently ordered a “line by line” review of DFID’s programmes. Setting aside snide remarks about that being what an accountant who knows next to nothing about international development would ask, here are some questions she should ask of each line, and a couple she shouldn’t ask.

What to ask

  1. Is this programme compatible with your overall strategy? I.e. decide what it is you want to fund and, just as importantly, what you do not. But be careful of ordering a change in strategy just because you’re the new minister. Too much chopping and changing by bilateral donors can be a real problem.
  2. Is it achieving good outcomes? Answering this question needs either hard evidence and/or independent evaluations. Note that not all programmes, e.g. those aimed at governance reform, can produce easily measurable outcomes, but it may be too early in their life to evaluate them properly. Do not confuse outcomes with outputs: shiny new classrooms are not evidence of rising educational standards even if the children in the picture are smiling.
  3. Is it delivering value for money? An absolutely critical question. Obviously it is difficult to compare outcomes between different sectors: how many vaccines delivered equals one species saved from extinction? But you can ask yourself is the ‘good’ quantified in (2) worth the money spent on it.
  4. Are improper people benefiting? This covers two eventualities. The first is whether the recipient government is using the aid programme to support its own naked political goals. The second case concerns ordinary corruption. This is detected by auditors. If you haven’t set up proper audit arrangements or agreed them with the grantee that is your fault.

What not to ask

  1. Are the accounting procedures correct? If this programme is about improving accounting procedures or if a programme to improve accounting procedures was recently implemented with this grantee then this is a reasonable question to ask. In all other cases simply refer to question 3: if value for money is being delivered who cares about the accounting procedures?
  2. Is anyone else funding it? Have the courage to believe in your convictions. Matching funding is for pussies!

And finally, if Justine Greening wants to make a difference, I suggest that she looks at all the new projects due to be funded and all the projects whose funding periods just came to an end and are now without. Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t, as they say, and if you want to avoid charges of wasting tax-payers’ money then not cutting funding to proven projects just because they’ve reached the end of the originally planned grant period would be a really good place to start.

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